Over the past couple of years, I’ve been completely engrossed in nonfiction. Despite loving novels as a child, I discovered that I enjoy reading about politics, history, and prominent figures throughout history even more. It’s the best way to learn more about the world and an excellent way to lull yourself to sleep after a long day.
However, recently I’ve been craving a break from reality. Maybe it was from reading too many heavy topics consecutively. Or, perhaps it was from obsessively following the news. Either way, I found myself looking for an escape.
Despite not knowing too much about her story, Circe ended up providing me with just what I needed.
As you might guess from the title, Circe tells the story of Circe—the daughter of the titan, Helios, and a naiad, Perse. While fans of Homer’s classic might remember her as a powerful enchantress, the start of the book paints Circe in a very different light. Unlike her parents and siblings, she’s not ethereal or powerful—she’s ordinary, unremarkable, and unattractive (at least by the gods’ standards).
Circe’s early life is lonely and challenging, but she begins to dabble in witchcraft as she grows older. Eventually, one of her spells goes wrong, and as punishment, Zeus banishes her to the island of Aiaia. Once there, she begins to hone her witchcraft and transform her island home.
Throughout the book, Circe has run-ins with many famous Greek heroes. She meets Daedalus and King Minos, Jason and his wife Medea, and, perhaps most importantly, Odysseus, King of Ithaca. She also meets several Olympians, most of whom despise her (she is a witchcraft-practicing titan, after all).
Character development that doesn’t feel phony
One of the reasons Circe feels so realistic as a character is because she’s aware of her limitations. It takes her years to develop her abilities, and even once she does, she accepts that they’re no match for some of the more dangerous beings in the world. That understanding forces her to get creative, and reading through the solutions she devises makes Circe an absolute page-turner.
On top of sharing her world with dangerous beings, Circe also has to contend with the fact that she’s a woman living in a man’s world, no matter how divine she may be. Miller could have used Circe’s gender cheaply as an excuse to sprinkle Hollywood feminism into the novel, but thankfully, she refrains from doing that. She fleshes out an authentic, multi-dimensional female character that feels organic in every way.
We see Circe begin as a quiet child, terrified to speak out against her father and the other figures in her life. We watch her handle the men who arrive on her island, often to do her harm. And by the book’s end, we see her stand up to some of the most powerful characters in the world. Circe’s character arc shows that stories don’t need girl bosses or warrior queens to be compelling feminist tales. Sometimes all it takes is an average character who grows confident and self-assured.
Circe is far from the only female character in the story, however. Miller also shows the reader how other women in the world manage to survive. In this sense, Circe is almost like Game of Thrones or Mad Men. Some female characters rely on their intellect to succeed, while others use their beauty and powers of seduction. Miller doesn’t say which tactic is right or wrong—she simply shows the reader how resourceful women in the past (and women today) have to be to succeed.
Circe: A story worthy of the legends
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that Miller manages to tie all the elements of the novel together in a satisfying and thoroughly unpredictable way. By the end of the book, I felt like I had embarked on my own Odyssey—one that took me around the ancient world that I’ve read so much about.
If reading about fierce and relatable witches doesn’t sound enjoyable, you might want to check out some of Miller’s other work. Her first novel, Song of Achilles, tells the love story between Achilles and Patroclus, heroes from the Trojan War. It’s intimate, tragic, and a fantastic modern retelling of a classic tale.
Miller does the same thing in Circe though, and because of that, it’s well worth picking up a copy of the book today.
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